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Stop Calling the United States a Banana Republic

The cavalier use of the term, by everyone from Robby Mook to Vladimir Putin, is morally obtuse

You’ve seen or heard it at least once this election season: some new outrage denounced by politicos and journalists as more appropriate to a “banana republic” than to the United States. From CBS’s Bob Schieffer to The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson, and from New York magazine’s Frank Rich to Tina Brown, accusations that America is flirting with “banana republic” status have become ubiquitous, particularly among liberals agog at the antics of the Trump campaign.

Practically every new twist in this Chubby Checker single of an election has prompted this dismissive response. The scene at the GOP Convention, Minnesota Senator Al Franken described, was “very banana republic.” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook, after the second Presidential Debate, said that “Donald Trump thinks that the presidency is like some banana republic dictatorship where you can lock up your political opponents.” And the FBI’s disclosure that they had discovered new Clinton-related emails sent “banana republic” invocations into high gear. In a column entitled “James Comey Puts Thumb on Scale, Brings Third World-Style Election to America,” The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky wrote: “If we Americans were watching an election unfold in, say, a Latin American country, and the head of the domestic police force did what [FBI Director James] Comey did, we’d be chortling our heads off at their backward, thuggish ways . . . [J. Edgar] Hoover was a Republican, but he wasn’t a banana republican. These days we’re surrounded by them.” On the Friday before the election, even President Obama deployed the phrase, telling Al Sharpton that “When you stand on a presidential debate stage, and you say to your political opponent, ‘I’m going to throw you in jail, that’s what happens in banana republics.’” 

The liberals who use this phrase mean to conjure the image of a distant and unstable tropical country that cannot be bothered to behave responsibly—a failed state of feckless and cartoonish leaders, broken institutions, and unserious citizens. But looking at the history behind the term reveals something else: “banana republics” like Honduras and Guatemala were troubled in no small part because American capitalism and imperialism wanted them that way. The behavior that it describes is perfectly horrifying, but the cavalier use of the term today is morally obtuse: revealing a lack of awareness of America’s history of exploiting those very same banana republics.

“Banana republics” were troubled in no small part because American capitalism and imperialism wanted them that way.

The term “banana republic” comes to us from William Sydney Porter, the author who wrote under the pen name O. Henry. On the run from the law for embezzlement, O. Henry hid out in Honduras, and in a loosely autobiographical 1904 novel called Cabbages and Kings, he invented the imaginary country of Anchuria and described it as a “small, maritime banana republic” after the most important export of several nations in Central America and the Caribbean in the early twentieth century. The name stuck, coming to designate a generic state with an overreliance on a single export commodity that could leave its economy vulnerable to price swings on the international market. But above all, the term “banana republic” became an epithet for a country whose governing institutions were corrupt, arbitrary, and generally inadequate.

An attitude of condescension toward the political “immaturity” of “banana republics” enabled American imperialism in the early twentieth century. The governments of “banana republics” could indeed be unstable, but that was a problem that their enclave export economies made worse. In the early twentieth century, rival banana companies armed guerrilla groups to try to depose leaders unfriendly to their interests. Political instability could then lead to U.S. occupation, sometimes lasting for decades. Company consolidation brought some peace, but in the form of oligarchic governments that would make sweetheart deals with U.S. corporations. With the banana companies as powerful generators of wealth, there was a heavy political cost to be paid for opposing their interests. Democratic governments were bad for multinationals, so “pro-business” dictatorships flourished throughout the region, remaining in power through fraud, violence, and corruption.

Yet focusing solely on the inadequacy of a government ignores the ways in which its very inadequacy can be working well—for someone. In banana republics, that someone was typically the banana company. Historically, the United Fruit Company (UFCo) was the region’s dominant commercial power, known as “the octopus” for its reach. UFCo was a pioneering vertically-integrated corporation, an American capitalist success story, which owned vast swaths of land for cultivation in multiple countries and operated railroads and a fleet of commercial ships. To many, UFCo was also synonymous with imperialist exploitation. Colombia’s Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, for example, made a violently suppressed strike of banana workers the climax of One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book that is intended to narrate the arrival of capitalism to Latin America. The poet Pablo Neruda also invoked the image of the United Fruit Company as a parasitic agent of imperial exploitation, writing: “Among the blood-thirsty flies / the Fruit Company lands its ships; taking off the coffee and the fruit; the treasure of our submerged / territories flow as though / on plates into the ships.” There were some benefits for banana workers, but relatively few for the economies of banana republics, as profits and product flowed back to the United States.

Trying to negotiate a more equitable arrangement all too often led to brutality. After years of kleptocratic and murderous dictatorship in Guatemala, popular movements forced democratic elections in 1944. Guatemala’s second election, in 1950, brought the nationalist Jacobo Arbenz to power. Arbenz decided to expropriate land that UFCo had left fallow and distribute it to poor peasants. He agreed to compensate UFCo for the land value it had declared on its Guatemalan tax returns, only a fraction of the land’s actual worth. UFCo lobbied the U.S. government to intervene, and appealed to the many government officials in the Eisenhower administration, including CIA director Allen Dulles, who had served on its board of trustees. UFCo’s lobbying coupled with the presence of Communists in parts of Arbenz’s government led the CIA to launch a campaign of psychological warfare against Arbenz, and support an invasion. Arbenz was forced from office in 1954 and the CIA’s chosen successor restored UFCo’s land. Guatemala went on to suffer decades of civil conflict, and hopes for peaceful, democratic reform throughout the region were dashed.

The term “banana republic” was used relatively sparingly until the 1960s, when it expanded significantly in popularity. This reason for this uptick in use is unclear; perhaps it was the success of the Cuban Revolution of 1959, which focused the attention of the English-speaking world on Latin America and its political and economic troubles. Or maybe it was the impact of representations in popular culture, films like Woody Allen’s 1971 Bananas, bringer of a Duck Soup comedic sensibility to the era’s revolutionary politics. The fictional leader of Bananas, a Fidel Castro type, goes mad and orders the citizens of his imaginary banana republic to wear their underwear outside of their pants. Like subsequent Hollywood representations of banana republics, films like Commando (1985), License to Kill (1989), or The Expendables (2010), Bananas is not a film that encourages us to take the political problems of banana republics seriously. Imaginary banana republics apparently exist to give American audiences laughs—or to furnish backdrops for fantasy violence and ludicrous body counts.

In our own time, reality television star and occasional presidential candidate Donald Trump also uses the image of the banana republic in the service of fantasy. On October 11th he told one crowd that “this election will determine whether we remain a free country in the truest sense of the word or we become a corrupt banana republic, controlled by large donors and foreign governments.” (Like so many of Trump’s insults—“crooked,” “nasty,” “temperamentally unfit to be president”—he seems unaware that he is describing himself far better than his opponent.) The stock byword for backward, broken, and corrupt governance has been appropriated by the right—people like Mark Levin and Kelly Riddell—who insist that the real “banana republic” threats are Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

What ties together invocations of banana republics on the left and right is a shared investment in histrionic American chauvinism.

On some level, many such uses, much like similarly meaning-evacuated deployments of the label “fascist,” are simply absurd. The anti-Trump conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, for example, may declare that “Trump’s America would be a banana republic”—but the impact of that ominous warning is rather blunted given that only two years earlier Krauthammer insisted that Barack Obama had already turned America into one. But what ties together invocations of banana republics on the left and right as a term of political abuse is a shared investment in histrionic American chauvinism. “Banana republic,” by conjuring backwards hellholes, evokes its supposedly respectable and stable opposite: in the words of former George W. Bush attorney general Michael Mukasey, that’s “not the way we conduct politics here.” But of course, the lesson of the history of banana republics is that such is precisely the way Americans conduct politics—but over there. Pieties about the respect for democratic institutions stop at the water’s edge; from there onwards, Americans apparently expect nothing and have a history of inflicting worse.

The ideology of American exceptionalism underwriting such bipartisan usage is particularly evident when “banana republic” becomes interchangeable with “Third World.” Condemning the “banana republic” corruption supposedly exposed by the FBI email investigation, Donald Trump insists: “Folks, we’re living in a third-world country. This has never happened before. This is the lowest point in terms of our judicial system. This is the lowest point in the history of our country.” Bracketing the sheer ridiculousness of Trump’s claims about now being the “lowest point” in the American judicial system (as opposed to, say, the Dred Scott ruling), what jumps out is his outrage at the disgrace of America being a “third-world country.” The appeal with which his rhetoric plays, and its flirtation with deeply ugly subtexts, is hardly his province alone. MSNBC’s Joy Reid opines that “The GOP has developed an almost third world attitude toward the presidency: if they can’t have it, they will seek to destroy whoever does.” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie expresses disgust at Trump’s “banana-republic machismo.” What all these perspectives leverage is a knee-jerk impulse of disgust at “the third world”—a response that vindicates American exceptionalism, without asking why those “banana republics” got to be that way, or if—just maybe!—the United States itself had something to do with their fate.

Thus, commenting on Trump, former Obama White House chief of staff William Daley righteously proclaims that: “He really has no appreciation for our history, which most of the world looks at with great admiration, as opposed to some banana republic.” The very point of using the term is to erase from America’s history its foreign entanglements (and with them, any meaningful reflection or moral implication), and to offer the United States up as the very picture of political virtue. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to reflect on the fact that Guatemala has in recent years done far more to hold its criminal politicians to account than the United States has.

The America that Trump and Clinton are each planning to take over is itself deeply politically dysfunctional. Someone is winning big from the dysfunction.

Of course, the America that Trump and Clinton are each planning to take over is itself deeply politically dysfunctional. Filibusters have subverted all but the most meager legislation, brinksmanship over the debt ceiling has threatened to force the U.S. to default, critical nomination hearings for the Supreme Court and other positions are blocked. Policies of systematic voter disenfranchisement strike at the heart of our electoral processes, and our institutions of law enforcement and criminal justice are brutal indeed. But these sources of shame are logical products of the American system of government, rooted in American institutional design and American history. American democratic failings are not unprecedented, and they do not need to be compared to “banana republics” in the country of Jim Crow, Richard Nixon, and J. Edgar Hoover. These are problems Americans have chosen, not ones that are foreign to our nature, and certainly not ones that have been imposed by some foreign empire. Vladimir Putin may be trolling when he asks “Is America some kind of banana republic? America is a great power. If I’m wrong, correct me”—but he’s not wrong.

America in 2016 is not O. Henry’s Anchuria. And yet someone is winning big from the dysfunction, and this is the entirely unused sense in which the banana republic comparison is a good one. The politics of banana republics took their form because certain elites in those countries could benefit themselves at the expense of their country’s population and development, and saw U.S. exploitation as an opportunity for personal enrichment and political aggrandizement. In a similar way, Republican intransigence and the general investment of our political elites in making U.S. government dysfunctional is also an instrument of class power.

The difference remains that when banana republics tried to make their own politics more effective and democratic, outside intervention from the United States generally stopped them. Americans have no foreign power to blame for our current condition: the fault lies within.